My Kind of Country

Country music from a fan's point of view since 2008

Tag Archives: Cindy Walker

Album Review: Alison Krauss – ‘Windy City’

51paza96cml-_ss500I wasn’t sure what to expect when I first heard that Alison Krauss was about to release a new album.  Although I have always greatly admired her talent, her choices have not always aligned with my tastes. Her penchant for extremely slow tempo songs can grow a bit dull after a while, and more often than not I have not liked her artistic stretches – her 2007 collaboration with Robert Plant, for example.  Adding to my skepticism is the fact that Windy City was to be an album covering ten classic songs; I’ve lost track of the number of artists who have released similar projects over the last decade or so.  The concept no longer holds the inherent appeal it once did.

That being said, I was very pleasantly surprised when I finally sat down to listen to Windy City.  Krauss and producer Buddy Cannon managed to avoid falling into the trap of selecting well-known songs that have been over-recorded by others, instead opting for mostly more obscure deep cuts.    Only two of the songs were familiar to me.   Also surprising was the fact that none of these songs – including the Osborne Brothers and Bill Monroe covers — is performed in a bluegrass style.  There is however, a lot of prominent pedal steel and more uptempo material than we typically hear from Alison.  It’s a very different sound for her and it is very effective.

The opening track and lead single is “Losing You”, a richly melodic ballad that is perfectly suited to Alison’s voice.  There is a subtle and tasteful string arrangement along with the pedal steel.  Originally a pop hit for Brenda Lee in 1963, at times it sounds like another more famous song that was also released that year:  Skeeter Davis’ “End of the World”.   Another Brenda Lee cover “All Alone Am I” appears later in the album.

“It’s Goodbye and So Long to You” is an uptempo number that was a hit for both The Osborne Brothers and Mac Wiseman.   The harmonies hint at its bluegrass origins, but it is performed here a straight country with just a hint of Dixieland jazz.   My favorite tune is the title track, which is also taken from The Osborne Brothers’ catalog.  I don’t know what year this song was originally released, but Alison’s version sounds like something out of the Nashville Sound era, although the strings are more restrained than what we typically heard from that period.   “Dream of Me”,  originally a hit for Vern Gosdin in 1981,  is my second favorite.

“I Never Cared For You” was written and originally recorded by Willie Nelson in 1964.  His only single for Monument Records, it was popular in Texas but not well known elsewhere.  Alison’s version has a slight Spanish flavor to it.   She also pays tribute to the great Roger Miller, overlooking some more obvious choices in favor of the ballad “River in the Rain”, which Miller wrote for the 1985 Broadway musical Big River.

The two best known songs on the album:  “Gentle on My Mind” and “You Don’t Know Me” are tailor-made for Alison.  One can imagine her singing both of these songs without even having heard her versions.    The former was made famous by Glen Campbell in 1967 (although it was not a huge chart hit for him).  The latter, written by Cindy Walker, has been recorded many times, most famously by Eddy Arnold in 1956.

The deluxe version of the album contains four extra tunes, all “live” versions of songs from the standard release.  By “live” they mean live in the studio, not live in concert.  They are all well done but not sufficiently different to really be interesting.  That is the album’s only misstep, and it’s a minor one.   There is also a Target exclusive version of the album with two more cuts:  “Til I Gain Control Again” and “Angel Flying Too Close To the Ground”.   Windy City,is an outstanding album and it deserves the support of all of us who have complained about the direction of country music in recent years.  It won’t generate any big radio hits but I do hope it sells well. I would like to hear more music in this vein from Alison in the future.

Grade: A+

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Album Review: Asleep at the Wheel & Leon Rausch – ‘It’s a Good Day’

91xsgyplbl-_sx522_Leon Rausch was the lead singer for Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys during the late 1950s and early 1960 and rejoined the band for its final recordings in 1973.  In 2010, he joined forces with Ray Benson and Asleep at the Wheel for It’s a Good Day, a diverse collection of western swing, big band, jazz and mainstream swing (if there is such a thing) tunes.  He is front and center for the album, handling most of the lead vocals, with AATW acting as his backing band. Floyd Domino, AATW’s original pianist, rejoins the group for this project, as he did for the previous year’s Willie and the Wheel.  The album was produced by Ray Benson.

At age 83, Rausch’s voice is gravelly but still quite strong and he sings surprisingly well for his age.  He holds his own with AATW’s Elizabeth McQueen who duets with him on “Alright, OK, You Win”, a Count Basie tune written by Maymie Watts and Sid Wyche.  It had also been a hit for Peggy Lee in the 1950s, and he outsings Willie Nelson, who acts as his duet partner on “Truck Driver’s Blues”.

I’m sure it won’t surprise anyone to hear that my favorite songs on the album are the more country ones, although I really do like all kinds of swing music and enjoyed the entire album.  The best ones are those that were penned by the great Bob Wills himself:  “I Didn’t Realize”, “Cotton Patch Blues”, “Sugar Moon” (a co-write with Cindy Walker) and “Osage Stomp”, the instrumental jam-session album closer.  I also quite enjoyed “Mean Woman with the Green Eyes”, which was not written by Bob Wills but was recorded by The Texas Playboys.

Benson and his band take a back seat to Rausch on this project, but Asleep at the Wheel , which is one of the best bands in any genre of music, is the glue that holds everything together. As always, the musicianship is excellent.  It’s not a strictly country album, but there isn’t a bad song to be found here.

Grade:  A

Album Review: Asleep at the Wheel – ‘Asleep at the Wheel’ (1974)

r-6847990-1427926933-1911-jpeg1974’s Asleep at the Wheel was the band’s second release and the first for Epic Records. It was also the first of a pair of eponymous albums; another album titled Asleep at the Wheel would be released about a decade later by MCA.

Produced by Norro Wilson, the album was almost completely out of step with mainstream country, and as such it did not sell particularly well. It did, however, produce the band’s first chart single, “Choo Choo Ch’Boogie”, which peaked at #69. But because it did not follow the the commercial trends of the day, it does not sound as dated as many of the albums released in that era. In fact, it is every bit as enjoyable today as it was over 40 year ago.

It is an eclectic collection of Western swing, straight country and 1940s-style jump blues. Two singles were released: “Don’t Ask Me Why (I’m Going to Texas)” written by Ray Benson, Leroy Preston and Kevin Farrell, and the aforementioned “Choo Choo Ch’Boogie” which had been a big R&B hit in 1946 for Louis Jordan & His Tympany Five. Despite the inclusion of some fiddle, steel and honky-tonk piano, “Choo Choo Ch’Boogie” doesn’t sound very country at all but it is very well done. “Don’t Ask Me Why” is more Bob Wills-style Western swing and is also quite well done.

“You and Me Instead”, another Kevin Farrell composition, is a more contemporary number with a 70s-style string section. It’s a different style than we typically expect from Asleep at the Wheel and I wonder why no one though to release this one as a single. I wouldn’t rank it among my favorites on the album but it seems like it would have had some mainstream appeal in 1974.

“Jumpin’ at the Woodside” is a Count Basie tune that still sounds like mainstream 1940s big band music, despite some excellent fiddle from the great Johnny Gimble, who played on seven of the album’s eleven tracks, including “Don’t Ask Me Why”.

If pressed to pick a favorite, I would probably choose “Last Letter”, which is sung beautifully by band member Chris O’Connell, who at times sounds a bit like Connie Smith. The song itself was written by Rex Griffin, who had a hit with it in 1937. It is a story told by a jilted spouse as she writes a suicide note to the spouse who abandoned her. Griffin wrote the song based on his own real-life experience. O’Connell takes the spotlight again on one other track, “Our Names Aren’t Mentioned (Together Anymore)”, which is performed as a duet with its writer Leroy Preston. Cindy Walker’s “Miss Molly” is another highlight.

Leroy Preston is not as good a vocalist as Ray Benson, but he sings lead adequately on four tracks, the best of which is “I’m Gonna Be a Wheel Someday”.

Asleep at the Wheel is an outstanding album from start to finish: the material is impeccable, and the musicians are excellent. The instrumental solos are as enjoyable as the vocals. I couldn’t find a single weak moment to criticize. I highly recommend it for anyone who is interested in Western swing — or swing music in general.

Grade: A+

Album Review: The Time Jumpers – ‘Kid Sister’

kid-sisterThe Time Jumpers’ third album is in many ways a tribute to the late Dawn Sears, who died of cancer in December 2014.

Dawn makes her last appearance on record on ‘My San Antonio Rose’, a Freddy Powers song which is quintessential western swing, and performed as a duet with Dawn’s husband Kenny Sears – an unexpected bonus. (Powers also died this year.) Dawn also sang harmony on ‘I Miss You’, a Vince Gill/Ashley Monroe song which was recorded for Gill’s solo Guitar Slinger album but didn’t make the final cut. It is an affecting ballad about enduring love for one who has gone, the verses of which Gill has rewritten to fit Kenny’s grieving for Dawn. ‘This Heartache’ is a very moving song written and sung by Kenny, inspired by his feelings about Dawn’s loss. The title track, written by Gill, was also inspired by Dawn, and the band members’ collective feelings about her.

Vince has written a charming introduction for the band, ‘We’re The Time Jumpers’. ‘Honky Tonkin’ is not the Hank Williams classic, but an entertaining love song written by Gill with Troy Seals, about adopting a simple domestic life and abandoning the protagonist’s old ‘favorite thing to do’. Some fabulous fiddle is particularly notable.

The band revive the effervescent ‘I Hear You Talkin’’, written by Cindy Walker with country legend Faron Young in the 50s. Joe Spivey sings lead on the Time Jumpers’ delightful version.

Moving away from western swing, ‘Table For Two’ is a gorgeous sad country ballad originally written by Gill with Max D. Barnes for Loretta Lynn. The Time Jumpers’ performance has weeping steel and a lovely vocal from Gill, and would have fitted in perfectly on one of his classic solo albums. Beautiful. The delicate ballad ‘The True Love Meant For Me’, which has an exquisite Gill vocal, is also outstanding.

“Ranger Doug” Green sings his own ‘Empty Rooms’, a stately mid-tempo tune about living with a broken heart. The quirky ‘Bloodshot Eyes’ is a cover of an old Hank Penny tune, which is an amusing takedown of a drunken partner:

Your eyes look like two cherries
In a glass of buttermilk

Don’t roll those bloodshot eyes at me
I can tell you’ve been out on the spree
It’s plain that you’re lying
When you say you’ve been crying
Don’t roll those bloodshot eyes at me

Looks like our little romance has kinda quietened down
You oughta to join a circus
You’d make a real good clown

‘Blue Highway Blue’ is a smooth jazzy ballad sung by band member Billy Thomas; a bit less to my personal taste than other racks, but very well done. The Gill-fronted blues ‘Sweet Rowena’ was also not quite my cup of tea.

Wonderful steel guitar player Paul Franklin is nominated for the umpteenth time this year as CMA Musician of the Year – isn’t it time he won? As a key member of the Time Jumpers, he contributes throughout the album, but gets a special chance to shine on his self-composed instrumental ‘All Aboard’.

I was very much looking forward to the release of this album, and I am pleased to report that I am not disappointed. Brilliantly played throughout, this is an excellent and thoroughly enjoyable album.

Grade: A

Edited to add: the Time Jumpers are currently running a contest on facebook to win a copy: https://www.facebook.com/TheTimeJumpers/?hc_ref=NEWSFEED&fref=nf

Album Review: Lorraine Jordan and Caroline Road – ‘Country Grass’

country-grass-2016If you like real country music, the kind that was played before 2005, with meaningful lyrics written by master craftsmen like Dallas Frazier, Cindy Walker, Harlan Howard, Hank Cochran, Merle Haggard and Tom T Hall, where do you go to hear it live?

Unless you live in Texas, your best choice is to visit a bluegrass festival. Today’s bluegrass acts are vitally concerned about finding good songs, regardless of the copyright dates. They are not concerned about the feeding and watering of mediocre songwriters simply because they are part of the pool of co-writers. A typical bluegrass group will include anywhere from 20% upwards of classic country songs in their repertoire.

Exhibit number one is the most recent album, Country Grass, by Lorraine Jordan & Carolina Road. This album is a bit of an outlier, because all of the songs are classic country, but one listen to this album and you will plainly hear that the legacy of 60s-90s country music is in good hands.

Lorraine Jordan & Carolina Road are a veteran act, having performed at the bluegrass festivals for over fifteen years. Lorraine plays mandolin and handles most of the lead vocals. She is joined by Ben Greene (banjo), Josh Goforth (fiddle), Brad Hudson (dobro) and Jason Moore (upright bass).

In putting this album together of classic country songs, Lorraine assembled a fine cast of guest stars, obtaining the services of the original artist where possible.

The album opens up with the Kentucky Headhunters’ song “Runnin’ Water”, a track from the Kentucky Headhunters’ fourth album. Doug Phelps of the Kentucky Headhunters sings lead on this entertaining track with bandmate Richard Young contributing harmony vocals. This track is straight ahead bluegrass.

Eddy Raven had a #1 record in 1984 with “I Got Mexico” and he chips in with the lead vocals on a track that is more bluegrass flavored than actual bluegrass.

“Darned If I Don’t, Danged If I Do” was a Shenandoah song. Shenandoah’s lead sing Marty Raybon has spent much of the last decade on the bluegrass circuit performing bluegrass versions of Shenandoah hits with his band Full Circle. The song is done in overdrive, but Marty remains one of the premier vocalists.

John Conlee is a long-time Opry veteran who had a decade (1978-1987) long run of top ten hits, including his 1983 #1 hit “Common Man”, taken at about the same tempo as his 1983 hit. Brad Hudson takes a verse of the lead vocal.

country-grass-2015Crystal Gayle had a #1 Country / #18 Pop hit in 1978 with “Waiting For The Times To Get Better”. Crystal and Lorraine trade verses on this one, an elegant sounding song and arrangement.

Lee Greenwood had a #1 record with “Dixie Road” in 1985. Unfortunately, Lee’s voice has eroded over the years so having Troy Pope sing a verse is welcome.

Jim Ed Brown has a top twenty recording of “You Can Have Her” back in 1967. This was probably one of Jim Ed’s last recording before his recent death, but he was in very fine voice indeed. Tommy Long takes part of a verse and harmonizes on this jazzy ballad.

“Boogie Grass Band” was a big hit for Conway Twitty in 1978, the title explaining the feel of the song completely. Unfortunately, Conway has been gone for over twenty years so Lorraine simply got everyone involved in this project to take short vocal turns, preserving the original tempo.

Randy Travis was in no shape to perform so Tommy Long handles the vocals on “Digging Up Bones”. Meanwhile T. G. Sheppard is still with us, so he and Tommy Long handle the vocals on “Do You Want To Go To Heaven”. The instrumentation here is bluegrass, but the tempo remains that of the country ballad that T.G. took to #1 in 1980.

Jesse Keith Whitley is the son of Lorrie Morgan and the late great Keith Whitley. Jesse sounds quite similar to his father and acquits himself well on “Don’t Close Your Eyes”. Jeannette Williams contributes gorgeous harmony vocals to this track which is taken at the same tempo as Keith’s original.

It would be hard to conceive of a bigger country/pop hit than Joe South’s “Rose Garden”, taken to the top of the charts in 1970-1971 by Lynn Anderson. Not only did the song top the country and pop charts in the USA, it went top four or better in nine foreign countries. Lynn Anderson and Lorraine Jordan share the lead vocals on this song, which probably sounds the least similar to the original of all the tracks on this album. Lynn passed away last summer, so this is one of the last tracks (perhaps the last track) she ever recorded.

Lorraine’s band shines on the last track of the album “Last Date”. Although there were several sets of lyrics appended to Floyd Cramer’s piano classic, I don’t really like any of the lyrics I’ve heard, so I appreciate that this was left as an instrumental.

I picked up this disc about a month ago and it has been in heavy rotation in my CD player since them. I was inspired to write this when Jonathan Pappalardo posted a video of John Anderson singing with Lorraine and Carolina Road. John is not on the original (2015) version of the album, but his performance can be purchased on Lorraine’s website http://www.carolinaroadband.com/, and is on the new re-released version.

Even if you do not particularly care for bluegrass you might really like this album, chock full of solid country gold songs, fine vocals and exquisite musicianship. I give it an A-, docking it very slightly for the eroded voices of a few of the guests.

Album Review: Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton – ‘Love And Music’

love and musicLove And Music was the tenth duet album by Porter Wagoner & Dolly Parton. Released in July 1973, only one single was released from the album, a cover of a Carl Smith oldie from 1951, “If Teardrops Were Pennies”, a song which Carl took to #8, but Porter and Dolly took to #3. As always, Bob Ferguson is listed as the producer.

The album opens up with “If Teardrops Were Pennies”. I don’t happen to own a vinyl copy of this album, but I’ve seen it and if I recall correctly Carl Butler, who wrote this song, also wrote the liner notes to this album. The song is a mid-tempo romp that Porter & Dolly do very well indeed, although I also like Carl Smith’s version of the song and the recordings that Carl & Pearl Butler made of the song.

If teardrops were pennies and heartaches were gold
I’d have all the treasures my pockets would hold
I’d be oh so wealthy with treasures untold
If teardrops were pennies and heartaches were gold

An acre of diamonds I’d offer to you
A solid gold mansion, an airplane or two
This whole world would be yours to have and to hold
If teardrops were pennies and heartaches were gold

Next up is the first of four Porter Wagoner tunes on the album “Sounds of Night” a gentle ballad with a nice fiddle intro by Mack Magaha. The song describes the lonely sounds of night (whippoorwills, church bells) and how they translate to human emotions

I don’t know much about Howard Tuck, other than what I found in his obituary (http://www.mywebtimes.com/obituaries/howard-red-tuck/article_e67fea9d-9ee8-5b24-8d2c-e7e5cf4e0300.html ) but his song “Laugh The Years Away” is a good song that would have made a good single. The song is a humorous look at married life, happy even if not blessed with material wealth.

A corporation owns the factory I work in
Someone else owns the house we call our home
The bank owns the car we drive around
And we’ve got something we can call our own

We’ve got love happiness surrounds us
And we thank the Lord for every single day
And with love we’ll always have each other
And together we can laugh the years away

Next up is the first of four Dolly Parton tunes on this album “You”, a rather bland ballad of domestic bliss.

Porter’s “Wasting Love” also would have made a good single, an up-tempo song about a couple growing apart. While the lyrics are good, the strength of the song is the melody.

“Come To Me” is a slow, serious ballad, that essentially finds Porter and Dolly trading verses. The song is inspirational without being religious. The song had no potential as a single, but it is a nice song.

Porter co-wrote “Love Is Out Tonight” with Tom Pick. The song is a slow ballad with very vivid imagery.

As blue skies and daylight darken into night
Surrounding us with beauty as the stars make their light
They spell out our names all the stars up above
As they flicker and shine like letters of love

Then a warm breath of air whispers through the trees
As the leaves on their branches have blown to the breeze
Ripples of water seemed to echo the sound
Love’s out tonight there’s love all around

Small drops of dew act as nature’s perfume
Placing its fragrance on all that’s in blue
While I hold you so close your lips touching mine
With nature all around us watching our love entwine

Porter Wagoner penned “In The Presence of You”. The song features a nice piano intro to a slow ballad of a people who cannot find the right words to say to each other, although they love each other deeply.

In the presence of you I wonder
Why I can’t say the things that I want to
All the pretty words that I planned to say when I’m with you
I lose them in the presence of you

Your nearness makes my voice tremble
There’s a weakness that I feel through and through
Searching for words to describe how I love you
Don’t come easy in the presence of you

Dolly penned “I Get Lonesome By Myself”, another of Dolly’s lonesome little girl songs. In this song the narrator stumbles across the daughter he abandoned a few years back. Dolly’s part is spoken in a somewhat creepy effort at a six year old girl’s voice.

The album closes with the forth Dolly Parton composition “There Will Always Be Music”, a nice capstone to the album.

As the farmer works the fields he sings a song
The songbirds in the trees sing along
And the wind makes melodies as it whistles through the trees
Man’s burdens are made lighter with a song

There’ll always be music as long as there’s a story to be told
There’ll always be music cause music is the voice of the song
There’ll always be music

Dolly Parton has a well deserved reputation as a songwriter, but Porter was no slouch either, although neither Porter nor Dolly would rank up there with Cindy Walker, Dallas Frazier, Harlan Howard or Hank Cochran. On this album at least, Porter’s songs are stronger than Dolly’s.

This is a pretty decent album, although not necessarily one of their better albums. As Jonathan Pappalardo noted in his excellent review of The Right Combination/Burning The Midnight Oil, “[w]hile none of these songs have truly amounted to anything, they combine to make a fine collection on their own”.

My feelings exactly – B+

Album Review: Loretta Lynn – ‘Sings’

loretta lynn singsLoretta Lynn Sings was Loretta Lynn’s debut album on Decca Records. Released in December 1963, the album followed on the heels of an uncharted single 1961 (“I Walked Away From The Wreck”), two 1962 singles including her first chart single “Success”, and another uncharted single (“World of Forgotten People”), and in 1963 another charted single, “The Other Woman”. There would be another single released in 1963, the #4 “Before I’m Over You” (not found on this album) before this album was released.

The album opens up with “Success” written by Johnny Mullins, who was a high school custodian. “Success” was a lament about how a husband’s career success was undermining their marriage. The song went to #6 as would “Blue Kentucky Girl”, another Johnny Mullins-penned song a few years later.

Since Loretta was a new artist that Decca was trying to break into the country markets, this album, more so than most country albums of the time, is full of covers rather than a few covers and some filler.

For many years Jimmy Gateley was the front man for Bill Anderson’s band. He was also an adept song-writer, as “The Minute You’re Gone” proves. Sonny James would have a top ten country hit with the song in 1963, and British rocker Cliff Richard would take the song to #1 on the UK pop charts (and top ten in seven other countries). Needless to say, Loretta sounds nothing like Cliff Richard but her presentation is strong and clear.

Betty Sue Perry would provide Loretta with quite a few songs during the 1960s. “The Other Woman”, not to be mistaken for the Ray Price song of the same title, tells the love triangle story from the perspective of the mistress.

According to Billboard, “Alone With You” was Faron Young’s biggest hit, spending a whopping ten weeks at #1. While I don’t think it was Faron’s biggest seller, it was a great song and Loretta acquits herself well on the song.

“Why I’m Walking” was writing by Stonewall Jackson and Melvin Endsley. A big hit for Stonewall Jackson, it resurfaced decades later as a hit for Ricky Skaggs. Again Loretta acquits herself admirably.

The first of Loretta’s own compositions “The Girl That I Am Now” is next. Although not released as a single, I think it would have made a good single and it demonstrates how proficient Loretta already was as a songwriter. This song is bout a wife who cheated on her husband and is racked by guilt and the hope that he never finds out about what she did.

He loves the girl I used to be
But could he love the girl I am now

I don’t think I need to say anything about the lineage of “Act Naturally’. Loretta tackles the song with aplomb. The instrumental arrangement remains up-tempo but the acoustic guitars have a very hootenanny era feel.

Another Loretta Lynn composition follows, “World of Forgotten People”. I don’t remember it being a hit single for anyone but everybody and his cousin recorded the song including the Osborne Brothers, George Jones, Conway Twitty, Vernon Oxford, The Wilburn Brothers, Ernest Tubb and countless others:

I live in the world world of forgotten people
Who’ve loved and lost their hearts so many times
I’m here in the world of forgotten people
Where every heart is aching just like mine

“The Color of The Blues” was written by George Jones and Lawton Williams and was a hit for George Jones. Lawton Williams, of course, wrote “Fraulein” and “Farewell Party”. Loretta handles the song effectively.

“Hundred Proof Heartache” is another of Loretta’s compositions. This works as an album cut but would not have made a good single for Loretta.

I’ve got a hundred proof heartache and a case of the blues
My baby’s gone and left me I’ve lost all I can lose
I’ve got a hundred proof heartache my world keeps turnin’ round
This hundred proof heartache’s got me down
You waded through my tears and said goodbye
You didn’t seem to care how much I’d cry
You made your home the tavern down the street
And this old heart cries out with every beat

Cindy Walker was a great songwriter, being a favorite writer for Bob Wills, Jack Greene and countless other country stars. “I Walked Away from the Wreck” equates a failed love affair with an automobile accident. Although released as a single, the song did not chart.

Justin Tubb’s “Lonesome 7-7203″ proved to be the only #1 record for Hawkshaw Hawkins, and a posthumous one at that for “The Hawk”, who died in the same plane crash that killed Cowboy Copas and Patsy Cline. The song would also be a hit for Tony Booth about a decade later. Whoever arranged the song took it at a far too slow tempo. Taken at a faster tempo I think Loretta could have really nailed the song.

There was a distinctive “Decca Records” sound during the 1960s that tends to permeate all of the label’s recordings. Since the same studio musicians and same arranger (Owen Bradley) were used on most of the major artists recordings, this is understandable. There was a little bit of an attempt to vary Loretta’s sound through occasional use of banjo or acoustic guitar on Loretta’s recordings but it was still basically a formulaic background production. Set apart Loretta’s recordings was her voice which could never be anything but country, no matter the pop trappings applied to the final product.

Loretta Lynn Sings would reach #2 on Billboard’s country albums chart. This album is a solid B+ but better albums would follow.

Album Review: Faron Young – ‘You Don’t Know Me’

you don't know meThe friendly folks at Cracker Barrel have released something I thought I would never see – a new album of Faron Young recordings.

This album is somewhat similar to CONNIE SMITH – THE LOST TAPES in that it is taken from live takes, old radio shows and some studio recordings that never were released. Unlike the Connie Smith recordings, these were one track recordings, not in a finished state.

Producer Scott Oliver of Country Rewind Records, took the incomplete tracks and added additional instrumentation, vocal backings and some orchestration to create recordings that would fit comfortably on country radio during the last wave of neo-traditionalism (roughly 1986-2001). Many of the tracks were cut on acetate pressings that were intended for a single play on the radio. As such, some of the tracks required painstaking repair efforts. If I had to guess. most of the vocals were originally recorded in one take resulting in vocals that sound spontaneous and alive.

The basic sound is crisp and clean and modern. Faron’s vocal performances are very good. There is no information as to the additional musicians used on the collection, but Faron’s son Robyn Young wrote the liner notes. I would guess the original radio tracks and demos came from the mid-to-late 1960s as none of the songs feature hits from the 1970s. Because the tracks were meant for radio shows, a few of the tracks run under two minutes (“Alone With You” runs only ninety seconds) so the total playing time of the disc is just over 35 minutes.

The songs are as follows:

“I’ve Got Five Dollars (and It’s Saturday Night)” – this song was #4 hit for Faron in 1956 (the duo of George Jones & Gene Pitney also had a hit with it in 1965) and is taken at a very brisk tempo.

“Hello Walls” – this Willie Nelson-penned song was Faron’s biggest seller spending nine weeks at #1 in 1961 and selling over a million records. The 1961 hit recording was not very country, having been aimed squarely at the pop charts (it reached #12). This recording turns it back into a country song with country fiddles and steel guitar being featured prominently in the mix.

“A Place For Girls Like You” – this song was Faron’s third chart single, reaching #8 in 1954. This version picks up the tempo a bit from the original version.

“She Went A Little Bit Farther” – Faron recorded for Capitol; Records until 1962, switching over to Mercury in 1963. This song reached #14 for Faron in 1968. Faron’s chart success was very up and down during his first five years with Mercury as he sought to repeat the pop success of “Hello Walls”. In 1969 Faron went back to being a traditional country singer. This version is a little faster than the recorded single version and a little more country.

“You Don’t Know Me” was written by the legendary Cindy Walker from an idea supplied by Eddy Arnold. Eddy had a top ten hit with the song in 1956 and Ray Charles had a #2 pop hit with it in 1962. This recording would have made a great single for Faron had it existed and been released during Faron’s lifetime.

“I Guess I Had Too Much To Dream Last Night” – I love the steel guitar work on this recording. Faron’s 1967 single only reached #48. This is a much better recording, a likely top five record had this been the released version.

“Goin’ Steady” was Faron’s first charted single in 1953, probably written by Hank Williams (1). The single reached #2 in its first trip to the charts. Apparently Faron wasn’t completely satisfied with the original hit version as he re-recorded the song numerous times during the next decade, gradually picking up the tempo until he issued a new single of the song for Mercury in 1970. The Mercury version reached #5 and features aggressive use of fiddles and steel guitar. On the version featured here, Faron’s vocals have just about reached the tempo of the Mercury recording, Although I like the Mercury version better than this recording, this is a very good recording

“Unmitigated Gall” reached #7 in 1966 for Faron. This is a good version although not a revelation and not terribly different in its net effect from the released single version

“I Miss You Already” went top five for Faron in 1957. This version was taken from a radio show and is quite good, again nothing revelatory but quite interesting. Nice steel and fiddle work

To younger minds, it must be impossible to conceive of this song being a hit single. Be that as it may, “I Just Came To Get My Baby (Out of Here)” went to #8 for Faron Young in 1968. The arrangement here is a little more country sounding that the hit single.

Faron Young had the first hit single on “Sweet Dreams” back in 1956, charting about six weeks before writer Don Gibson’s version hit the charts. Faron’s version reached #2 on the charts. This is a solid country version. For my money Faron Young was the best interpreter of this song, better than Don Gibson, Patsy Cline or anyone else that followed.

“If You Ain’t Lovin (You Ain’t Livin’)” was Faron’s fourth chart single back in 1954 reaching #2 in early 1955. This Tommy Collins tune was recorded by many artists during the 1950s and 1960s. I like this version very much.

“Alone With You” – according to Billboard, this was Faron’s biggest hit spending thirteen weeks at #1 in 1958. This version is taken at a very fast tempo, finishing up in ninety breath-taking seconds. Very solid fiddle and steel guitar on this track. I love this track, I just wish it lasted a little longer.

I don’t remember “You Had A Call” – it wasn’t a single and if I heard it before, it passed by unnoticed. Not so this version, which caught my attention the within the first few notes. Unlike most of the songs on this collection, this is a slow ballad with a mostly understated arrangement that lets Faron’s voice take center stage.

“Live Fast Love Hard Die Young” was Faron’s first #1 single back in 1955, spending three weeks atop the charts. This version, from a radio show, is slightly faster than the original recording. The instrumental breaks on the recording are very good and very country. The song is a perfect ending to a very entertaining album. I just wish they had found a few more songs to lengthen the album a bit.

(1) The legend says Hank gave Faron the rights to “Goin’ Steady” in exchange for which Faron would give up dating Billie Jean Eschelman, a young lady both had been dating. Billie Jean would become the second Mrs. Hank Williams and in a bizarre twist of fate, would also be the widow of Johnny Horton.

Album Review: Jim Ed Brown – ‘In Style Again’

in style againI can’t tell you when Jim Ed Brown last issued a solo album of new material. The last one I recall was It’s That Time Of The Night on RCA in 1974, After that there were some duet albums with Helen Cornelius, but even the last of those albums came in 1980. There may have been something after that but I don’t recall anything.

Anyway, it truly is a pleasure to have some new material from Jim Ed. The voice isn’t quite as smooth as it was in 1954 or 1974, but it is still a good voice with warmth, depth and character.

While not specifically designated as a ‘concept album’ , the general theme of the album is that of an older person looking back at life.

The album opens up with “When The Sun Says Hello To The Mountain” a wistful older song I’ve heard before. Famous French-Canadian singer Lucille Starr had a huge hit with this record singing the original French lyrics. Marion Worth had a country hit with it in 1964, and Mona McCall (Darrell Mc Call’s wife) does a fine version of the song (using mixed French and English lyrics under the title “The French Song”), but Jim Ed nails the song and makes it his own. It’s a lovely ballad with a beautiful melody. Jim Ed is joined by his sister Bonnie Brown and the song sounds like a song the Browns could have recorded in their heyday. Chris Scruggs plays Hawaiian-style steel guitar on the track.

When the sun says hello to the mountains
When the night says hello to the dawn
I’m alone with my dreams on the hilltop
I can still hear your voice although you’re gone

I hear at my door
The love song in the wind
It brings back sweet memories of you.
I’m alone dreaming only of you.

“Tried and True” was written by the album’s producer Don Cusic, one of six songs Cusic wrote for this album. The song is a mid-tempo ballad, a love song about the kind of love the singer bears for his true love.

“In Style Again” was produced by Bobby Bare and issued as a single a year or two again. It wasn’t really part of this album project, (there is no overlap among the musicians used on this track and the rest of the album tracks) but it was added to the album and fits in nicely with the general theme of the album. It should have been a hit, but of course, radio won’t play songs by octogenarians, no matter how high the quality.

I’d like to be in style again someday
No one wants to feel like they’ve been thrown away
Yes, nothing lasts forever but it hurts to be replaced
By a younger fresher pretty face
So if only for a while
I’d like to be in style again

Don Cusic penned “Watching The World Walking By” a mid-tempo ballad of the life as seen through older eyes.

“You Again” was a #1 hit for The Forester Sisters in 1987. Jim Ed is joined by Cheryl & Sharon White on this slow ballad, another retrospective love song. Paul Overstreet and Don Schlitz wrote this song.

Looking at my life
Through the eyes of a young man growing older all the time,
Maybe just a little wiser
I can clearly see
All my mistakes keep coming back to visit me
Pointing out the roads not taken
So much I’d like to change but one thing I’d do the same

I’d choose you again, I’d choose you again
If God gave me the chance to do it all again
Oh, I’d carefully consider every choice and then
Out of all the girls in the world
I’d choose you again

Jim Ed digs into the song bag of Hall of Famer Cindy Walker for “I Like It”. It’s another mid-tempo ballad as is the next track, probably the most famous song on the album, “Don’t Let Me Cross Over”, a song which spent eleven weeks at #1 in 1962 for Carl & Pearl Butler. Jim Ed is joined here by his former duet partner Helen Cornelius. They still sound great together although Jim Ed and Helen don’t sing with the exuberance of the original. This song does not quite fit the general theme of the album since it’s an old-fashioned (almost) cheating song.

“Older Guy” is another song from the pen of Don Cusic, this one another mid-tempo ballad comparing the energy of younger guys to the wisdom of older men. This song straddles the line between jazz and country. “It’s A Good Life”, also written by Don Cusic continues the narrative of the album, which is the view of life through the eyes of an older man.

Bill Anderson chips in with “Lucky Enough” , probably the most up-tempo song on the album. In this song the singer recounts the thing in life that really represents good luck. If you’re lucky enough to be in love, you’ve already won – you’re lucky enough! Sometimes we forget that.

“Laura (Do You Love Me?” is yet another slow ballad from Cusic, this one the tale of a person left Ireland long ago separating himself from his one true love , thinking of her often and wondering if she still thinks of him.
“The Last One” is another slow ballad, this one ruminating about the emotions of end of life situations. It’s rather a sad song and one that could never sound sincere in the hands of a younger artist.

“Am I Still Country” is another Don Cusic song, a wry tongue-in cheek ballad that pokes fun of bro-country and poses the essential question ‘Am I Still Country Or I Have I Gone Too Far?’ I love the song and think that in different circumstances the song could have been a hit.

Meatloaf and cornbread are both mighty fine
But I like Chinese with a glass of French wine
I watch NASCAR and football but never shot a deer
Sometimes I kick back and watch Masterpiece Theater
I love to hear Chet play jazz guitar
Am I still country or have I gone too far

I like to go to parties and have a good time
But I’m usually home and in bed by nine
Me and my lady find sweet romance
With champagne, Sinatra and a real slow dance
I like a martini with real cigar
Am I still country or have I gone too far

The production on this album features a good dose of fiddle (Glen Duncan) and steel guitar (Chris Scruggs). The album clearly is aimed at older listeners as the younger listeners mostly won’t relate to these songs, although these songs chronicle what eventually will happen to most of us. Younger listeners may not relate to these songs but they certainly could learn a lot from this album.

The producer of this album, Don Cusic, has had an interesting and distinguished career covering most aspects of country music. His story can be found at www.doncusic.com.

Although it is early in the year, this may be the best album of 2015. Certainly it will be in the running – a solid A +

Album Review: Ricky Van Shelton – ‘RVS III’

RVS IIIRVS III appeared in January 1990, a little more than a year after Loving Proof. Like its predecessors, it was produced by Steve Buckingham and was a mixture of both new material and some carefully selected covers of older songs that were suddenly back in vogue during the New Traditionalist era. This time around, however, there was slightly less emphasis on rockabilly-style numbers on more on ballads which were proving to be Ricky’s strong point.

Preceding the release of RVS III was a maginificent cover of “Statue of a Fool”, which had been a #1 hit for Jack Greene in 1969. Ricky’s version just missed the top spot, peaking at #2, but it remains one of the standout singles of his career and is his greatest moment of this album. The uptempo “I’ve Cried My Last Tear For You”, written by Tony King (who was engaged to Wynonna Judd at the time) and Chris Waters was the next single. This one did reach #1, but it’s not one of my favorites, which is a not a criticism of the song, but a testament to the strength of the rest of the album. Another great ballad “I Meant Every Word He Said”, in which the protagonist is forced to watch the woman he loves marry another man, also topped out at #2. The album’s fourth and final single was a cover of “Life’s Little Ups and Downs”. The blues-tinged track was an underperforming single for Charlie Rich in 1969. Ricky’s version reached #4, and although it provides a change of pace, it’s my least favorite track on the album.

There are only two rocking numbers on RVS III – “Love Is Burnin'”, which is in the same vein as “Crime of Passion” and a cover of Roy Orbison’s “Oh, Pretty Woman”. The rest of the album was comprised of ballads, most of which could have been hit singles, but Columbia was likely reluctant to release too many ballads in a row to radio. Among these choice tracks are “You Would Do The Same For Me”, a Rory Bourke-Mike Reid composition that I would have preferred to see as a single in lieu of “Life’s Little Ups and Downs”, “I’m Starting Over” written by Kix Brooks with John Wesley Ryles and Mark Sherrill, and a fantastic version of Cindy Walker’s “Not That I Care”. This beautiful waltz had been a minor hit for Jerry Wallace in 1966 (peaking at #44) and had also been recorded by The Wilburn Brothers.

Another standout is album’s closing track “Sweet Memories”, which had been an adult contemporary hit for Andy Williams in 1968 and covered by Willie Nelson in 1979. Ricky is joined by Brenda Lee, who was long past her commercial peak, but her voice was still strong and lovely and complemented his nicely. The track features a tasteful string arrangement which gives it a little more countrypolitan feel than the rest of the album.

Despite a couple of weak spots, namely “Life’s Little Ups and Downs” and the self-penned and forgettable “I Still Love You”, RVS III is packed with top-drawer material and it quickly attained platinum status as its two predecessors have. However, by this time the formula of a few rockabilly numbers and a lot of ballads, a few old songs and a few new was starting to become predictable and may partially account for Shelton’s relatively brief reign at the top of the charts. Nevertheless, it is an album well worth listening to and I enthusastically recommend it.

Grade: A

Album Review: Gene Watson – ‘My Heroes Have Always Been Country’

my heroes have always been countryA new album from Gene Watson always is cause for celebration, and My Heroes Have Always Been Country is no exception to the rule. What you get with this album is eleven excellent traditional country songs sung by one of the best male vocalists in the business. Although Gene is now seventy years old, his voice is still in fine shape although perhaps pitched a little lower than in his prime.

The album kicks off with Dottie West’s biggest copyright as a songwriter, “Here Comes My Baby Back Again”. The song won Dottie a Grammy in 1965 and provided her with her first solo top ten record in 1964. Gene’s version is true to the spirit of the original recording although minus the ‘Nashville Sound’ trappings of strings and choral accompaniment. I don’t know if the effect was intentional, but the female backing singer, Cindy Walker, sounds like Dottie West would in singing harmony on the choruses of this song. Producer Dirk Johnson’s work on keyboards is prominently featured in the arrangement as are the fiddle of Aubrey Haynie and the steel guitars of Mike Johnson and Sonny Garrish.

Here comes more tears to cry
Here comes more heartaches by
Here comes my baby, back again
Here comes more misery
Here comes old memories
Here comes my baby, back again

“Don’t You Believe Her” comes from the pen of Nat Stuckey. While never a hit single, both Ray Price and Conway Twitty had nice recordings of the song as album tracks

She can give you a reason to live if she wants to She can make you forget other loves that you have known She has two lips and two arms that thrill you as very few do And if you want her to give them to you, just ask and she will

Don’t you believe her – I did and soon she’ll be leaving me
Don’t you believe her – if you do then soon she’ll be leaving you too

It takes a brave man to cover Johnny Paycheck’s “Slide Off Of Your Satin Sheets” (a number seven hit for Paycheck in 1977) but Gene is up to the task. In fact I actually like Gene’s version better than the original.

Gene has been featuring Hank Cochran’s “Make The World Go Away” in recent performances, and why not? Although the song was a hit at least three times (Timi Yuro, Ray Price, Eddy Arnold) it is a great song well worth hearing again. Gene’s version is a little more straight-forward country than the Price or Arnold versions, but Gene is as skilled and nuanced a singer as either Ray or Eddy and delivers a memorable performance of the song.

“The Long Black Veil” receives a dramatic, but not melodramatic, reading from Gene Watson that burnishes the Danny Dill / Marijohn Wilkin classic with a new luster. I think Lefty Frizzell would approve of Gene’s version.

I suppose you can’t do an album of modern classic country without reaching into the Merle Haggard song bag. In this case Gene has pulled out a tune written by Glenn Martin and Hank Cochran titled “It’s Not Love (But It’s Not Bad)”. Gene has always been the master of the medium-slow ballad and this song is no exception.

No, it’s not love, not like ours was, it’s not love
But it keeps love from driving me mad
And I don’t have to wonder who she’s had
No, it’s not love but it’s not bad

Haggard took “It’s Not Love (But It’s Not Bad)” to number one in November 1972.

Gene reached deep into the George Jones catalog and found the Sandra Seamans / Kay Savage-penned “Walk Through This World With Me”. The song spent two weeks at number one in 1967 and is one of the many great songs that George recorded for the Musicor label. For my money, the best George Jones recordings came from the United Artists and Musicor labels during the 1960s. I prefer George’s recording but just by a hair.

Walk through this world with me,
Go where I go
Share all my my dreams with me,
I need you so
In life we search and some of us find
I’ve looked for you a long, long time

And now that I’ve found you,
New horizons I see
Come take my hand
And walk through this world with me

Those of us over 60 remember “(Turn Out The Lights) The Party’s Over” as the song ‘Dandy Don’ Meredith sang on ABC Monday Night Football as soon as the game was out of hand and the winner inevitable. Younger folks may remember hearing the venerable songwriter Willie Nelson sing it in concert. After hearing Gene’s version, you’ll think of it as a Gene Watson classic.

“I Forget You Everyday” was written by Merle Haggard but was never issued as a single. The truth is that during his peak years Merle Haggard was writing more great songs than he could ever get around to issuing as singles. Consequently, this song languished as an album cut on one of Hag’s fine Capitol albums, unheard to any but those who purchased the album. I hope Gene issues this as a single, although I don’t expect radio will play the song.

Memory is a gift a man can’t live without
And in times we can’t control the things we think about
So sometimes I still remember you in every way
But for a little while I forget you every day

“Count Me Out” was written by Jeanne Pruett, a song that she recorded for RCA during the mid-1960s. It didn’t chart for her and Marty Robbins’ 1966 recording of the song only reached number fourteen but it’s a really good song and kudos to Gene for unearthing it.

Taking me for granted was your first mistake
And that was the beginning of my last heartache.
And then you added insult to my injury
When you started treating me just as you please.

Count me out of future plans you might be making.
No more foolish chances am I taking.
You played love’s game too rough.
As for me, I’ve had enough
‘Cause the going’s got too rough so count me out.

Gene closes out this album with a song commonly associated with Buck Owens. Although Buck never issued the record as a single, he did cut it as an album cut and kept it in his live shows for a decade. Orville Couch co-wrote “Hello Trouble” and took it to number five in 1962. In 1989 the Desert Rose Band took it to number eleven on both the US and Canadian country charts. The song is a short (1:55) up-tempo song that makes a perfect closing note for yet another fine album. While cheerful in its sound and feel, the narrator of the song knows that the cheer is but of short duration.

Gene Watson covers no new ground in this recording, instead doing what he does best, singing good and great songs as well as anyone ever will sing them.

Producer Dirk Johnson’s production is solidly modern traditional country with fiddle and steel featured prominently throughout. In lieu of the symphonic strings featured on the original versions of some of these songs, fiddlers Aubrey Haynie and Gail Rudisill-Johnson have created some nice string arrangements that complement the songs without overwhelming them.

Although hardly an essential part of the Gene Watson canon (except to the extent that every Gene Watson album is essential), it will please all of his many fans and hopefully gain him some new fans.

Grade: A (or 4.5 Stars)

Album Review – The Byrds – ‘Sweetheart of the Rodeo’

TheByrdsSweetheartoftheRodeo

For more background on Sweetheart of The Rodeo, including insights into the recording sessions, click here

Just as Chris Hillman was enrolling at UCLA, he got a call from his old manager Jim Dickson to join a new band as their Bass Guitar player. The Byrds as they came to be known consisted of Roger McGuinn, David Crosby, Gene Clark, Michael Clarke, and Hillman. He’d never picked up a bass guitar before, but his bluegrass background led him to quickly master it while developing his own style with the instrument.

Although he remained quiet on the bands first two releases, he quickly rose to the forefront, and he blossomed as a singer and vocalist after Clark left the band. By 1968, the band was down to just Hillman and McGuinn after Crosby bid his farewell. To replace him they hired Gram Parsons, who along with Hillman changed the sound of the band to reflect a country rock style, which was unheard of in the music industry at the time. This revolution was captured on The Byrds’ Sweetheart of The Rodeo, which was released on August 30, 1968.

The album found Hillman playing a supporting role yet again, as Parsons and McGuinn shared the brunt of the vocal duties. Parsons, who was little known at the time, was brought to the forefront of mainstream rock because of this album.

Sweetheart of the Rodeo was originally supposed to be a reflection of American popular music incorporating elements of Jazz and R&B but Parsons steered the project into a pure country album instead. This move was highly controversial, as Nashville had little interest in embracing a band they thought of as longhaired hippies attempting to sabotage country music. In the mists of all the hoopla, Parsons left the band, and wasn’t even a member when the August release date came around.

A cover of Bob Dylan’s “You Ain’t Going Nowhere” was released in April as the project’s lead single. The band heard the tune on a collection of Dylan’s Woodstock demos and thought it appropriate for them to cover. The mid-tempo ballad features an assist from Lloyd Green on Pedal Steel and came more than three years before Dylan would commercially release the track himself. It peaked at #74 on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart.

Hillman and McGuinn arranged the second and finale single “I Am A Pilgrim,” which failed to chart. The folk song is a bit more country sounding than the Dylan cover thanks to McGuinn’s banjo and some lovely fiddle playing by John Hartford.

Even more famous than the two singles is Parsons’ “Hickory Wind,” a fiddle and steel ballad he co-wrote with Bob Buchanan on a train ride from Florida to Los Angeles. The song is marred in controversy, from claims it wasn’t Parsons but a blind folksinger named Sylvia Sammons who wrote it, to being the tune that got them banned from The Grand Ole Opry. As the story goes, Parsons sang it instead of their planned Merle Haggard cover of “Life In Prison” and thus ticked off the country music establishment and sent shockwaves through the audience. Nonetheless “Hickory Wind” is an excellent song that still endures today.

Parsons also wrote “One Hundred Years from Now,” a tune in which McGuinn and Hillman shared lead vocals and Green once again contributed pedal steel. It’s another excellent song and I love the production on it, too, thanks in a large part to Green’s beautiful flourishes of steel.

The remainder of Sweetheart of the Rodeo consisted of cover songs. The band revived soul singer William Bell’s debut single “You Don’t Miss Your Water,” which had only been released five years earlier. The band’s version is similar to Bell’s although they take out the horns in favor of steel guitar performed by JayDee Maness.

Songs by The Louvin Brothers and Cindy Walker also appear. Charlie and Ira’s “The Christian Life” doesn’t differ much in The Byrds’ hands, but they manage to turn it into a honky-tonk stunner (with a wonderful lead vocal by McGuinn) and one of the album’s more twang-centric songs. Walker’s “Blue Canadian Rockies” is in similar vain and one of my favorite of this albums’ numbers thanks to the twangy guitar and Hillman’s wonderful lead vocal.

The aforementioned Haggard (and Jelly Sanders) song “Life In Prison” appears here, too. It’s stunning through and through from Manass’ steel guitar to Parsons’ lead vocal. He finds a way to channel Haggard while still making the song his own.

I also adore their version of Woody Guthrie’s “Pretty Boy Floyd,” a folk song about the titular bank robber. The band dresses it up with Hartford’s otherwordly banjo riffs and Hillman’s gorgeous mandolin picking. McGuinn also has a natural knack for storytelling that serves him well as he shoulders the lead vocal duties.

Luke Daniels’ “You’re Still On My Mind” is another Parsons fronted number featuring Maness on steel guitar. The results are glorious as the sunny steel is ear candy for the listener. The album closes with a final Dylan cover, “Nothing Was Delivered.” McGuinn takes the lead and with Green on pedal steel, the results are wonderful.

Full disclosure – before writing this review I’d never listened to an album by The Byrds, Chris Hillman, or Gram Parsons (although I do own Grievous Angel on vinyl). And as a formal introduction it doesn’t get much better than Sweetheart of the Rodeo. The album is a classic in every sense of the word and a pure delight to listen to forty-six years later. I had an idea what to expect when I went in to listen, but I had no idea what a fabulous steel guitar record this would turn out to be. Lloyd Green and JayDee Maness are masters of their craft and just a pure joy to listen to. If you don’t own your own copy of this album I suggest you run out and buy one as Sweetheart of The Rodeo is a must own for any fan of country or roots music.

Grade: A+

Album Review – Willie Nelson – ‘Shotgun Willie’

220px-Shotgun_WillieAfter the release of The Willie Way in 1972, Willie Nelson opted not to resign with RCA Records, thus terminating his seven-year relationship with the label. He retreated to Austin, Texas for what was supposed to be a short trip, but found the bourgeoning hippie scene at Armadillo World Headquarters so enlightening that it had a profound effect on his musical style. Back in Nashville, he met Atlantic Records Vice President Jerry Wexler at a party who then signed Nelson as the first act under Atlantic’s newly formed country division.

The sessions for Shotgun Willie began in New York City (where Wexler rented Nelson a studio) in February 1973. The initial sessions yielded the tracks that would become his 1976 album The Troublemaker plus early sides for Shotgun Willie. Nelson was still feeling uninspired after these preliminary sessions, but found the motivation he needed after penning what would become the album’s title song on a sanitary napkin rapper in his hotel bathroom. Turkish-American music producer Arif Mardin oversaw most of the sessions while Wexler and David Briggs also shared production duties. Sessions for the project also took place in Nashville as well as Sun Studios in Memphis, Tennessee.

The significance of Shotgun Willie cannot be overstated – it was one of the original albums of the outlaw movement, a revolt against the slick pop-heavy Nashville Sound that was dominant at the time. National sales of the album were poor upon release that June, although in Austin it sold more copies than most of Nelson’s earlier recordings did nationwide.

Atlantic chose the title track as the lead single and it peaked at #60 on the Billboard Country Chart. The song tells the story of real-life domestic abuse suffered by Nelson’s daughter Lana. When Nelson confronted Lana’s husband, he threatened to kill him if he ever hit Lana again. Lana’s husband retaliated by shooting at Nelson’s house with his brothers, only to have Nelson fight back by shooting at their truck, thus ending the incident. It’s a fairly simple song given the subject matter, with Nelson singing, ‘You can’t make a record if you ain’t got nothing to say,’ referring to his anguish over the recording sessions. The production is nice and understated, with acoustic guitars and drums framing Nelson’s confident vocal.

A cover of Bob Willis’ “Stay All Night (Stay A Little Longer)” was the second and final single peaking at #22. Nelson’s version is very good even though it scarifies the track’s western swing elements in favor of a jaunty barroom arrangement complete with a chorus of backup singers. His vocal could’ve also been stronger, as he seems to mumble a bit throughout, but it does add a nice effect to the whole proceedings.

Nelson’s original studio recording of “Whiskey River” was on Shotgun Willie, coming a year after Johnny Bush’s (who co-wrote the song with Paul Stroud) #17 peaking hit. Nelson would release the song from Willie and Family Live five years later and it would become his signature tune. The studio recording is very similar to the live one, but lacking in the famous boisterous energy Nelson is known for with the song. It’s still excellent and a nice alternate interpretation to the smoothness of Bush’s take.

“Bubbles In My Beer” was a second Willis’ cover and a song that became a country music standard shortly after Willis and his Texas Playboys first recorded it in 1947, taking it to #4 on the charts. Co-written by Cindy Walker, Thomas Duncan, and Willis it’s the drinking song that started the classic theme of drowning your sorrows in a barroom. Nelson hits a home run by retaining the western swing elements of the song while also updating it for the modern audience.

Keith Whitley covered “Sad Songs and Waltzes” in 1982 although it first saw CD release in 2000 as the title track to a compilation of his pre-fame recordings. Nelson’s original is phenomenal, with acoustic guitars and pedal steel framing his gorgeously deep vocal. He gives a more understated reading than Whitley, and his conversational tone has a hymn-like effect that helps the track stand out.

Leon Russell wrote “You Look Like The Devil,” a simple no-frills traditional country number complete with Steel and acoustic guitars. He also penned the American standard “A Song for You,” which closes the album. Nelson’s take is slow, with just a simple acoustic guitar backdrop, but it allows him to shine vocally, giving the track an everyman feel that draws the listener in to the story.

“Local Memory” is beautifully simple number with nice acoustic guitar, steel, and drums giving Nelson a gently rolling mid-tempo arrangement to compliment his warm vocal. It’s an excellent track, even when Nelson descends to near whisper at the end of the second verse, just before the melody picks up again.

“Slow Down Old World” has an elegant opening of Spanish-infused guitar that gives way to a wonderful mix of acoustic guitar and steel. Nelson’s vocal is sharp and confident giving off an intimacy between Nelson and the listener. “Slow Down Old World” is easily one of Nelson’s finest moments.

“Devil In My Sleeping Bag” gives the middle of the album a nice dose of pep, infusing acoustic guitars and drums in a sunny feel good arrangement. It’s an excellent story song about his return to Austin but the chorus becomes a little prodding with Nelson’s exaggerated twang putting a damper on the listening experience. “She’s Not for You” is a typical Nelson ballad, with his usually sleepy vocal, but the production (complete with steel, guitars, and drums) helps to nicely lift the song out of the doldrums of being another slow number. “So Much to Do” is also slow, but the fantastic lyric makes up for any shortcomings in the production:

My oatmeal tastes just like confetti

The coffee’s too strong so forget it

The toast is burning

Well let it

There’s just so much to do

Since you’ve gone

Too much to do all alone

Shotgun Willie may’ve only peaked at #41, but it remains one of Nelson’s most important albums, a project that “cleared his throat” as he later said. The project is a masterpiece not because of the Outlaw Movement it inspired, but on it’s own merit – song for song, vocal for vocal it’s spot on. The arrangements let the songs have their own life and Nelson once again proves his incredible talents at crafting simple yet effecting songs. Shotgun Willie stands out because it doesn’t pander to any ideals – it just stands on its own as an understated gem. If you’re only familiar with Nelson’s more popular recordings from the mid to late 70s, go and pick this one up. You’ll witness a singer/songwriter in his prime, who’s stumbled upon the authentic identity that would help cement his place in not just country, but American music history.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Ricky Skaggs – ‘Waitin’ for The Sun To Shine’

Ricky’s work with Emmylou Harris had brought him to the attention of Nashville, and in 1981 he signed a solo deal with Epic Records. His Epic debut was self-produced, and he played guitar, fiddle and mandolin himself, backed by some stellar pickers. Future wife Sharon White and her sister Cheryl sing harmonies, and their father Buck plays piano. It was country rather than bluegrass, with electric instruments, steel guitar and piano added to the mix, but there was a distinctly bluegrass and sensibility to it, particularly in the song selection. Where it is not rooted in bluegrass, the inspiration is in traditional country, with most of the songs being relatively obscure covers. The tasteful playing is excellent throughout, but remains in service to the songs.

A vibrant cover of Flatt & Scruggs’s bluegrass classic ‘Don’t Get Above Your Raisin’’ was Ricky’s first chart single, peaking at #16. The rhythmic ‘You May See Me Walkin’’ (written by Tom Uhr of bluegrass band the Shady Grove Ramblers) then sneaked into the top 10 at 9. Ricky scored his first chart topper with ‘Crying My Heart Out Over You’, another Flatt & Scruggs song, cowritten by county veteran Carl Butler. It works perfectly for Ricky, whose understated version has become the standard.

‘I Don’t Care’ also made it to #1, as it did for the original artist, honky tonk star Webb Pierce, in 1955. It was written by the great Cindy Walker and is a sweet love song refusing to pry into his sweetheart’s possibly murky past, which Ricky delivers with sincerity:

I don’t care if I’m not the first love you’ve known
Just so I’ll be the last

The gently resigned hurt of ‘If That’s The Way You Feel’, a cover of a Stanley Brothers classic, is delightful, with tasteful harmonies from Sharon and Cheryl. ‘Lost To A Stranger’ is a plaintive ballad with a lovely tune, which was originally recorded by its writer Hylo Brown in 1954.

‘Your Old Love Letters’, cover of a 1961 hit by Porter Wagoner, feels charmingly old fashioned now, with Ricky pondering a past love affair as he burns the titular letters (tied up in blue ribbons). The rhythmic ‘Low And Lonely’ is catchy, and another older song, a single for the legendary Roy Acuff in 1942. Merle Travis’s ‘So Round, So Firm, So Fully Packed’ also dates from the 1940s.

The title track, virtually the only new song included, is a beautiful ballad which has become a modern country classic with perhaps the best known version by Lee Ann Womack on her superlative There’s More Where That Came From in 2005. Ricky’s version isn’t quite as gorgeous, but still very good, and the song is lovely with an optimistic feel about the likelihood of getting past current heartbreak.

There really is not a weak track on this excellent album. A real breath of fresh air in the Urban Cowboy era, it is astonishing to contemplate today how warmly such a bluegrass-influenced album was received in the country mainstream. Sales were excellent for the era, and the album was certified gold. Its follow up, Highways & Heartaches (which Razor X reviewed when it was reissued on Skaggs Family Records in 2009), was to do even better, and really set Ricky Skaggs up as a mainstream country star. Both albums stand up very well today, and cheap used copies of both can be found easily.

Grade: A

Country Heritage Redux: Ernest Tubb (1914-1984)

An expanded and updated version of an article previously published by The 9513:

Disclaimer: Expect no objectivity at all from me with this article. Along with Webb Pierce and Merle Haggard, Ernest Tubb is one of my all-time favorite country artists. Yes, I know he started out most songs a quarter tone flat and worked his way flatter from there, and yes, I know that 80% of The 9513s readership has technically better singing voices than Tubb had. But no one in country music (and few outside the genre, Al Jolson, Louis Armstrong, Louis Prima, Phil Harris among them) was ever able to infuse as much warmth and personality into his singing.

Ernest Tubb, known as E.T. to nearly everyone, was born in 1914 in Crisp, Texas, a town in Ellis County which is no longer even a flyspeck on the map. Tubb grew up working on farms and used his free time learning to play guitar, sing and yodel. As with many who grew up in the rural southeast and southwest, E.T. grew up listening to the music of the legendary “Singing Brakeman” Jimmie Rodgers (1897-1933), and like such contemporaries as Gene Autry, Jimmie Davis , Bill Monroe, Jimmie Skinner and Hank Snow, E.T. started his career sounding like a Jimmie Rodgers clone. In Ernest’s case, he eventually met Jimmie’s widow, Carrie Rodgers, who was sufficiently impressed with Tubb to sponsor his career and give him one of Jimmie’s guitars to play. Tubb played clubs around Texas and the southwest and, with Mrs. Rodgers’ help, secured a record deal with RCA. As there had already been one Jimmie Rodgers, Tubb’s sound-alike records sold only modestly.

Good luck can take many forms. In Tubb’s case, his good luck came in the form of illness. In 1939 E.T. suffered a throat infection that necessitated a tonsillectomy, robbing him of his ability to yodel and thereby forcing him to develop a style of his own.

Moving to Decca Records in 1940, Tubb continued to record. Nothing happened initially, but his sixth release–a self-penned number titled “Walking the Floor Over You”–turned him into a star. The song was released in 1941, before the advent of Billboard’s country music charts. It did, however, appear on the pop charts, selling over a million records in the process. The song was covered by such luminaries as Bing Crosby and became Tubb’s signature song. Over the years the song has been recorded hundreds of times with artists including Pat Boone, Hank Thompson, Patsy Cline, Asleep at the Wheel and Glen Campbell being among the more notable.
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Album Review: Merle Haggard – ‘My Love Affair With Trains’ and ‘The Roots Of My Raising’

After over a decade on Capitol, 1976 saw Haggard calling a halt to his association with the label. He was still at his peak, and that year he was to release three albums, two of which are avilable on one CD reissue. One of these was his first thematic concept album (as opposed to his tributes to two of the musical heroes who had inspired him), My Love Affair With Trains. Haggard wanted to document his lifelong love of trains at a time when this important element of American history was being swept away, and to pay tribute to the men who had worked and lived on the railroads.

It opens with an acoustic snippet from ‘Mama Tried’ with its reference to his childhood dreams of trains, leading into the first of a series of spoken reminiscences and comments over a selection of genuine train and whistle sounds, which are interspersed with the songs. Proceedings open with the Dolly Parton-penned title track, a cheerful mid-tempo number with solid train rhythms which belies the generally elegiac mood. The subdued and melancholy ‘Union Station’, written by Ronnie Reno (the bluegrass singer and musician who was then a member of the Strangers) about a station threatened with demolition, exemplifies the overall tone.

Perhaps surprisingly, given the obvious personal resonance of the subject matter, only one song is a Haggard original. That self-penned song is the firmly autobiographical ‘No More Trains To Ride’, a catchy mid-tempo song, with somewhat wistful lyrics as Merle reflects on his father’s railroad career and the hoboes in a vanished world. Red Lane’s ‘The Coming And Going Of The Trains’ narrates the story of the railways over history by dipping into the lives of those affected. There is the arrival of the railroads, displacing the Native Americans, providing a lifeline for drought stricken farmers in Texas, giving hope to prisoners measuring time by counting off trains, and finally the regret of an engineer about to be pensioned off. Mark Yeary’s ‘I Won’t Give Up My Train’ is a first person story song about a railroad engineer who can’t bring himself to leave the travelling life even when it conflicts with his family responsibilities. Read more of this post

Country Heritage Redux: Charley Pride (1938 – )

An updated version of the article originally published by The 9513:

While he’s not exactly forgotten, it’s been twenty-five years since Charley Pride received much airplay on country radio – which seems unbelievable considering the dominant force he was on the charts. For the ’70s, Billboard has Charley listed as its third ranking singles artist behind only Conway Twitty and Merle Haggard. Pride also shows up as fourth on the Billboard Country Album chart for the same decade, while Cashbox has him as its number one artist for the period of 1958-1982.

Younger listeners who have not previously heard Pride will have a real treat coming when they sample his music from the ’60s and ’70s. He has a very distinctive voice; one not easily forgotten once it’s been heard.

Originally planning on a career in Major League Baseball, Pride grew up in the cotton fields near Sledge, Mississippi, where he listened to the Grand Ole Opry on Saturday nights. For whatever reason, Pride’s taste in music leaned towards country – perhaps he sensed (correctly) that his voice fit the genre perfectly. While pitching in semi-pro baseball in Montana, Pride was “discovered” by Red Sovine, who urged him to try his luck in Nashville. Pride did just that after his hopes of a career in baseball were gone, and soon thereafter he came to the attention of legendary producer Jack Clement. Clement did everything within his power to get Pride recorded and on a label, going so far as to self-producing the singer’s early recording sessions and shopping the masters. Clement even eventually persuaded Chet Atkins to add Pride to RCA.

Racial relations have come a long way since Pride emerged as country music’s top star and its first African-American superstar. The situation in America was so tense in 1965 that RCA issued his first few singles without the customary picture sleeves and promotional information, hoping to get country audiences hooked before they realized his race. To get the disk jockeys to play the records, they made them as hard-core country as was possible for the time, and listed the label’s four big name producers (Chet Atkins, Jack Clement, Bob Ferguson and Felton Jarvis) as the co-producers on the singles. DJs of the ’60s might not have known who Charley Pride was, but Atkins, Clement, Ferguson and Jarvis were known to all within the industry, so the records were destined to get at least some airplay.

Eventually country audiences tumbled onto Charley’s “permanent suntan” (as he put it), but it was too late. They simply loved his singing and would demonstrate this love by purchasing millions of his albums over the next 30 years, pushing four albums to gold status, a rarity for country albums with no cross-over appeal.

The first album, appearing in 1966, was Country Charley Pride; it had solid country arrangements and contained no hit singles as it was basically an album designed to introduce Pride to the marketplace. The songs included:

“Busted” — a 1963 hit for Johnny Cash & the Carter Family, and later a successful single for Ray Charles and John Conlee. It was written by the Dean of country songsmiths, Harlan Howard.

“Distant Drums”
— this Cindy Walker-penned song was a posthumous #1 for Jim Reeves in early 1966–the first of several such songs for Reeves.

“Detroit City” was a 1963 hit for Bobby Bare. Earlier in 1963, Billy Grammer had a hit with the song, recording it under the title “I Want To Go Home.” Mel Tillis and Danny Dill wrote this classic song.

“Yonder Comes A Sucker” — Jim Reeves took this self-penned song to #4 in 1955.

“Green Green Grass of Home”
— Johnny Darrell and Porter Wagoner hit with this Curly Putman classic in 1965, Porter scoring the much bigger hit of the pair.

“That’s The Chance I’ll Have To Take”
— label mate Waylon Jennings had a minor hit with this in 1965.

“Before I Met You”
— charted at #6 for Carl Smith in 1956. Smith’s star had faded by 1966, but he had been one of the biggest stars in the genre during the 1950s. This was Charley’s second single, issued in mid-1966. It would be the last non-charting single for Charley Pride for the next 28 years.

“Folsom Prison Blues”
— this was not as obvious a trendy pick as you might think. Johnny Cash took this song to #4 in 1956 – the #1 hit version and album were still 18 months away at the time this album was issued.

“The Snakes Crawl At Night”
was Pride’s first single, and while it did not chart nationally, it got significant regional airplay in the south and southwest. It was, in fact, the song that introduced me to Charley Pride.

“Miller’s Cave”
— Hank Snow had a hit in 1960 and Bobby Bare had one in 1964 with this Jack Clement-penned song (both top ten records). Clement was not simply padding his coffers by having Charley record his songs, as he was a top-flight songsmith. He wrote several Johnny Cash hits, including “Ballad of a Teenage Queen,” (Cash’s top charting record), and “I Guess Things Happen That Way.”

“The Atlantic Coastal Line”
— this was the “B” side of “The Snakes Crawl At Night” but it got some radio airplay. Mel Tillis wrote this song.

“Got Leavin’ On Her Mind”
— Jack Clement wrote this song, which was never a big hit, although Mac Wiseman had a terrific record on the song in 1968, and many others recorded it as well.

Normally, the strategy of introducing an artist to the public through an album entirely composed of oldies does not succeed. This time, however, the “country classics” strategy worked to perfection in priming the demand for more. Subsequent Charley Pride albums would feature newer songs and more of Pride’s own hits – lots of hits. Before long, all of Nashville’s leading writers were pitching their best material to him, with Dallas Frazier being his early favorite. So successful was Pride that an incredible string of 35 consecutive songs reached #1 on the Billboard and/or Cashbox Country Charts. Starting with 1969′s “Kaw-Liga” and ending with 1980′s “You Almost Slipped My Mind”, every Charley Pride single (except the 1972 two-sided gospel record “Let Me Live”/”Did You Think To Pray” and the 1979 “Dallas Cowboys” NFL special souvenir edition) reached #1. After the streak ended, Charley would have another 6 songs that were #1 on either Billboard and/or Cashbox. “Kiss An Angel Good Morning” released in 1971, would, of course become his signature song.

In addition to the above milestones, Charley Pride recorded a live album in 1968 at Panther Hall in Dallas, simply one of the best live albums ever. During his career, RCA issued three best of Charley Pride albums and two Greatest Hits albums with absolutely no overlap between the albums; moreover, several major hits were left off completely. He won the CMA Entertainer of the Year award, induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame, the ACM’s Pioneer Award (a fitting award, if ever there was one), and several Grammy awards. Global sales reportedly brought 30 of his albums up to gold status.

During the CD era, Pride was very poorly served, at least until recently. At one point in the mid-1990s, he re-recorded 25 of his classic songs for Honest Entertainment, using the original arrangements, producer Jack Clement, and as many of the original musicians as he could find. For several years these re-makes were the only versions available, as RCA neglected its back catalog of anyone not named Elvis Presley.

Charley Pride continues to perform and record. While his voice has lost some tonal quality over the years, he still sings very well indeed. His success did not herald a phalanx of African-American singers into county music. Perhaps, that was an unrealistic expectation, since voices as good as that of Charley Pride rarely come around.


Charley Pride on Vinyl

Charley’s peak period coincides with the period in which the biggest stars issued three or four albums per year. From 1966-1979 RCA released 31 albums – 28 regular albums plus 3 ‘Best of’ collections. Generally the albums from before 1972 are the best, although all of them are worthwhile. After Pride hit the big time the albums became more formulaic and contained more filler, but the hit singles remained top-notch.

From 1980 to 1986 RCA issued 11 albums including two Greatest Hitscollections. A switch to 16th Avenue saw three more albums released before the end of the vinyl era.

After leaving RCA at the end of 1986, Charley recorded for 16th Avenue Records where he charted eight singles through 1989 when the label folded. His albums on 16th Avenue were released on vinyl and audio cassette. His two biggest hits for 16th Avenue were “Shouldn’t It Be Easier Than This” (1988 – #5) and “I’m Gonna Love Her On The Radio” (1988 – #13) and he released three albums while on 16th Avenue in After All This Time, I’m Gonna Love Her On The Radio and Moody Woman.


Charley Pride’s RCA recordings on CD

The Essential Charley Pride – BMG 1997 — an adequate overview with 20 songs, 19 hits plus a cover of “Please Help Me I’m Falling.”
The Essential Charley Pride – BMG 2006 – this two CD set replaced the prior entry and contains forty of Charley’s hits. An excellent set and an excellent value.
Charley Pride’s Country – Readers Digest 1996 — for years this was best available American collection. Containing 72 songs, 20 or so hits plus some good album cuts and cover versions.
The Legendary Charley Pride — BMG Australia 2003 — 50 songs, 40 hits plus a few other songs. Now out of print, this collection still is as good as any hits collection .
36 All Time Greatest Hits — RCA Special Products 193 — 36 songs — about 50-50 hits and other songs.

Several of Charley Pride’s other RCA albums have been available on CD over the years including Greatest Hits, Greatest Hits V2 (both truncated versions of the vinyl albums), There’s A Little Bit of Hank In Me (his Hank Williams tribute) and Charley Pride In Person at Panther Hall .


Other CDs and Recent Output

The 16th Avenue recording have been available on CD under a variety of names and for a variety of labels. The Curb CD The Best of Charley Pride is mostly 16th Avenue Recordings.

As noted above, so little of his music was available during the 1990s, that Charley re-recorded twenty-five of his biggest hits for Honest Entertainment. He also recorded some newer material, along with some other songs. These recordings have been licensed to a variety of labels including the Gusto, King, Tee Vee family of companies. These aren’t bad recordings but the originals are better.

Charley continues to record, although only occasionally. Three noteworthy albums from recent years include the following:

A Tribute To Jim Reeves (2001) – Charley recorded many Jim Reeves songs during his early peak years, so this album of all Jim Reeves songs was a natural for him to record. Charley does right by Jim’s memory.

The Comfort of Her Wings (2003) – new material – a pretty good album, although it produced no hits.

Choices (2011) – more new material, given a good run by one of the most distinctive voices in the business.

Album Review: Emmylou Harris – ‘Cowgirl’s Prayer’

Often a new record deal presents the opportunity for an artist to go off in a different direction and explore new territory, but 1993’s Cowgirl’s Prayer is more of a transitional album in Emmylou Harris’ career. Her first release for Elektra/Asylum was once again produced by Allen Reynolds and Richard Bennett, and follows the same basic template of 1990’s Brand New Dance, using mostly stripped down arrangements and understated performances. As she had done in the past, Emmylou had members of her band and some marquis name guest stars perform on the record. Nash Ramblers members Sam Bush, Al Perkins, Jon Randall Stewart and Roy Husky, Jr., all made appearances, while Alison Krauss, Suzanne Cox, and Trisha Yearwood all contributed harmony vocals and Kieran Kane lent his guitar-playing skills.

Never one to blindly follow trends, Emmylou resisted the then-current fashion of releasing beat-driven, slickly produced and often too-loud music meant to appeal to those on club line-dancing floors. Cowgirl’s Prayer is largely a quiet affair, which, along with Emmylou’s advancing age (by Nashville standards) at a time when country music had begun to become youth-obsessed made the album’s chances for success an uphill climb. It was largely met with indifference by radio, which is a shame because it contains some of the best performances of Emmylou’s career.

The rocker “High Powered Love”, which is not one of my favorites in the collection, was the first to be sent to radio. It stalled at #63. “Thanks To You” , written by Jesse Winchester fared slightly worse, peaking at #65. In between these two singles, a cover of Lucinda Williams’ “Crescent City” was released, and it failed to chart at all.

I like the album cuts in this collection much better than the radio singles. Particularly good are a tastefully produced and beautifully performed version of the old Eddy Arnold and Cindy Walker Classic “You Don’t Know Me”, and “Lovin’ You Again”, in which Emmylou portrays the long-suffering lover whose partner is gone for long stretches of time but always turns up when he has nowhere else to go. The best track on the album is “Prayer in Open D”, which Emmylou wrote herself. It begins as an expression of sorrow and despair:

There’s a valley of sorrow in my soul
Where every night I hear the thunder roll,
Like the sound of a distant gun
Over all the damage I have done.
And the shadows filling up this land
Are the ones I built with my own hand
There is no comfort from the cold
Of this valley of sorrow in my soul.

But by the end of the song, the bleakness gives way to hope:

There’s a highway risin’ from my dreams,
Deep in the heart I know it gleams
For I have seen it stretching wide,
Clear across to the other side
Beyond the river and the flood,
And the valley where for so long I have stood.
With the rock of ages in my bones
Someday I know it will lead me home.

The track is mostly acoustic-guitar led, along with a tasteful string section arranged by former Hot Band Member Emory Gordy, Jr..

There is a spiritual theme throughout the album, from the title and “Prayer in Open D”, to “The Light” and “I Hear A Call” to the Southern-spiritual flavored “Thanks To You”, on which Trisha Yearwood sings harmony, to “Jerusalem Tomorrow”, which is the most unusual track in the collection. It tells the story of a faith healer in Biblical times, who is essentially put of out business by, and eventually becomes a follower of, Jesus Christ. It’s an interesting tale, but I’m not a big fan of songs that are spoken rather than sung, so this is the one track I tend to skip over.

Cowgirl’s Prayer charted higher on the albums chart than Brand New Dance (#34 for Cowgirl’s Prayer vs #45 for Brand New Dance), but it was largely regarded as a commercial disaster. It is primarily remembered as the catalyst that caused Emmylou to make an unfortunate, in my view, change in musical direction; her next release was 1995’s controversial and more rock-oriented Wrecking Ball, which began a 13-year era in which Emmylou’s music drifted further away from the traditional country for which she had become famous. Although 2008’s All I Intended To Be, was in some ways a return to form, Cowgirl’s Prayer remains the last of the old-style Emmylou Harris albums. It’s still easy to find at Amazon and iTunes and well worth purchasing if you missed it the first time around.

Grade: A –

Album Review: Brooks & Dunn – ‘If You See Her’

Brooks & Dunn spent 1997 on tour together with Reba McEntire as co-headliners.  One night Reba would open for Brooks & Dunn and the next night they’d switch.  At the end of that tour, Reba and Ronnie Dunn would perform ‘You Don’t Know Me’ as a duet before being joined onstage by Kix Brooks for a song I think was called ‘Cotton Fields’.  But Reba and Ronnie’s take on the Cindy Walker classic was really the highlight of the evening. Between them, they possess two of the finest voices in modern country music.  But that 1997 tour was supposed to be a one time deal, and besides, Ronnie Dunn already had a duet partner at the time.

In early 1998, both acts were working on new albums.  Reba and Kix Brooks both heard a song called ‘If You See Him’ (or maybe it was called ‘If You See Her’ and Reba intended to change the lyric – that part I don’t know) and put it on hold, unbeknownst to each other.  When they found out what happened, they decided to do the song a duet between the two acts, becoming a sort of trio at the end.  Recording that duet set the wheels in motion for another national tour pairing between the redhead and the pair of cowpokes, plus it set the stage for a really innovative cross-label promotion of the albums that would contain the song, now titled ‘If You See Him, If You See Her’.  I’ve always been impressed with the album-counterpart idea, and given the success both acts had I’m surprised the idea hasn’t been repeated.

I’m not sure a duo had ever taken on another star pairing for a single release in country music’s history, but Brooks & Dunn did just that with the release of the single. Likewise, both albums were released on the same day.  Reba would call hers If You See Him and the duo’s would be billed If You See Her.  They both hit stores June 2, 1998.  The Brooks & Dunn disc would bow at a #4 peak on the Country Albums chart and eventually sell two million copies – on the strength of three chart-topping singles and a fourth top 5.  A fifth single release would fail to crack the top 40 – the first of their career – and so far the only release – to do so.

After the chart-topping title track, the mid-tempo ‘How Long Gone’ was sent to radio. Melodic and melancholy, it continued the style the pair had set for themselves, and sailed to the #1 spot as well.  A cover of Roger Miller’s country and pop hit from 1966, ‘Husbands and Wives’ was the third consecutive #1 from the set.  This tune finds the narrator observing the number of marriages breaking up, and finally concludes, ‘It’s my belief, pride if the chief cause/In the decline of husbands and wives‘.  The mournful waltz seemed tailor made for Dunn’s smooth tenor.

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Album Review: Reba McEntire – ‘If You See Him’

reba if you see himReba McEntire and Brooks & Dunn spent 1997 on tour together as co-headliners.  One night Reba would open for Brooks & Dunn and the next night they’d switch.  At the end of that tour, Reba and Ronnie Dunn would perform ‘You Don’t Know Me’ as a duet before being joined onstage by Kix Brooks for a song I think was called ‘Cotton Fields’.  But Reba and Ronnie’s take on the Cindy Walker classic was really the highlight of the evening. Between them, they possess two of the finest voices in modern country music.  But that 1997 tour was supposed to be a one time deal, and besides, Ronnie Dunn already had a duet partner at the time.

In early 1998, both acts were working on new albums.  Reba and Kix Brooks both heard a song called ‘If You See Him’ (which I guess would become ‘If You See Her’ for the duo) and put it on hold, unbeknownst to each other.  When they found out what happened, they decided to do the song a duet between the two acts, becoming a sort of trio at the end.  Recording that duet set the wheels in motion for another national tour pairing between the redhead and the pair of cowpokes, plus it set the stage for a really innovative cross-label promotion of the albums that would contain the song, now titled ‘If You See Him, If You See Her’.

On June 2, Reba’s album If You See Him and Brooks and Dunn’s own If You See Her would be released.  Meanwhile, Reba and Brooks & Dunn hit the road, taking Terri Clark and David Kersh along this year.  The single shot to the top of the country singles chart and stayed there for 2 weeks.  If You See Him quickly went gold and then platinum. Three other singles hit the top 10, and the disc itself debuted at #2 on the albums chart – while the Hope Floats soundtrack had a solid lock on the top spot. For those interested, Brooks & Dunn’s If You See Her bowed at the #4 position the same week.

‘If You See Him, If You See Her’, with its adult contemporary fare is much more akin to the songs on Reba’s album and in her catalog than Brooks & Dunn’s.  The story of two former lovers confiding in a mutual friend about how they still love each other is well-written, and the addition of Kix Brooks at the end on harmony makes for a very pleasant and interesting listen.  Meanwhile, Reba and Ronnie Dunn turn in killer vocal performances, though it’s obvious they recorded the song in Ronnie Dunn’s key rather than Reba’s as her acrobatics sound like they were more of a chore than usual.

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